I cannot believe it has taken me this long to write a column on the finest of fruits.
The words should have come easily to me.
And yet they did not, as a rather angry journalism adviser can attest to.
The tomato is an organism of such importance that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on whether it was a fruit or vegetable (I’m not kidding. They actually ruled on it and came down on the vegetable side.).
It is impossible to describe the delight of those few months when fresh tomatoes are available.
And indeed the length of that season is one of the main benefits of being a Californian.
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, as is the assertion that disliking fresh tomatoes in California is tantamount to sedition.
Nevertheless, those claiming to dislike fresh tomatoes have likely been deprived of a good one.
Sweet, juicy and pleasantly acidic, a good tomato represents everything summer can be.
Add some olive oil, a few shreds of mozzarella from the milk of the Italian water buffalo (yes, a water buffalo) and perhaps a splash of balsamic vinegar to lend it that deep, nuanced acidity, and you have something truly remarkable.
A quick trip to any farmers market in the state will show you what the tomato can be.
This time of year stands are filled to bursting—Cherokee purples, green zebras, brandywines, tomatoes so dark purple they verge on black—and every bin is a myriad of colors and tastes.
The tomato is a New World fruit, a member of the deadly nightshade family and therefore considered poisonous by many in Europe for centuries even as other New World exports like beans, corn, potatoes (and syphilis) spread widely.
Perhaps because of its supposedly deadly heritage (guilt by association at its worst), it was regarded as inedible for centuries in Europe.
And yet one day a brave Italian thought to char that strange orange fruit (yes, tomatoes all used to be orange) and created a sauce that would unlock the full potential of pasta.
I am speaking, of course, of tomato sauce.
Now it is certain that a fresh tomato—perfectly grown and perfectly ripe—is superior to any method of cooking it.
A great tomato sauce, however, comes closest to rivaling that glory.
Here is the unfortunate truth: tomato sauce is barely Italian at best.
I don’t just mean that it is made from an American fruit; I mean that in most of Italy it lacks the spicy garlicky wonderfulness that we associate it with.
It is enjoyed rarely in the north of Italy, and one has to go as far south as Sicily to regularly encounter the intense flavors that mark the best examples of its American cousin.
That’s right—by and large it is the American version that is superior.
Now savor that statement, for it is not one you will hear me say often.
A great tomato sauce has four things in common: chilies, garlic, herbs, and finally something that few would ever think of in a tomato sauce and that sounds disgusting to those who have not tried it— anchovies.
That’s right: those little fish that only bizarre human beings—beyond the scope of my understanding—like on top of their pizza are key to the good sauce below.
Granted, the sauce is not bad without them, but it lacks the depth of flavor, the intensity that these morsels bring to the party.
But as I said before, making sauce from tomatoes, even a great sauce, is at best a compromise.
A perfect tomato at the height of the season, sprinkled with nothing but salt, pepper and basil, is something that is not just quintessentially Italian but representative of all that is great about food.